• Dayna Tohidi

My life, my choice

Plaster asks two rising London-based creatives from the Muslim Bengali and Sierra Leonean diaspora about their unorthodox career aspirations and if their parents are supportive

Central Saint Martins' BA textile design student, Memunatu Barrie, and freelance makeup artist, Salwa Rahman, against a textile print that Barrie developed for her graduate collection, titled "Warm Citrus Skins." © Memunatu Barrie/Salwa Rahman

Growing up, Salwa Rahman and Memunatu Barrie were encouraged to seek jobs in industries that offered stability, status and financial independence. Law, medicine and engineering would have ticked all three boxes – except they found their calling in makeup artistry and fashion design, respectively. They speak to Plaster about their career ambitions and the source of their parents’ concerns.

Salwa Rahman

Law graduate turned freelance makeup artist, Salwa Rahman, discovered makeup at 14 when her older sister passed down her 24/7 Urban Decay gel liners. “I remember being mesmerised by the teal and purple shades. I literally wore them throughout that entire summer,” she says with a wide smile. When Rahman was a teenager, makeup was her “small act of rebellion against the Western trope of the oppressed Muslim woman, which [she] disagreed with on another level.” However, as the 25-year-old of Bengali descent has grown older and more spiritual in her faith, it has evolved into a form of art therapy and self-expression. When scrolling through Rahman’s portfolio of makeup looks on Instagram, you will instantly notice her audacious use of colour and abstract experimentation with pattern. “I find inspiration in everything. When I see a beautiful flower or unusual design, my brain tries to imagine ways of translating that onto my face,” she tells Plaster.

The emphasis placed on corporate jobs by the South Asian Muslim community led her to study law at SOAS University. “That was what the career I associated with success and survival,” she says. During her degree, she found herself questioning if she wanted to become a lawyer and took a four-year hiatus after graduating to give the beauty industry a shot. Now, Rahman works part-time in retail and as a freelance makeup artist, but her dream is to become a beauty director. "As much as I enjoy the practicality of being a makeup artist, there's a lot more imagination and construction involved in beauty direction,” she explains. At first, Rahman’s parents were concerned about her career change because it doesn’t offer the same prestige and job stability as a lawyer, but seeing her earn income from it has “softened the blow a little.”

Although most of her 30,000 + Instagram followers support her talent, Rahman is aware that makeup is a contentious subject among Muslims. In Arabic, the word “Haya” represents modesty, and traditional interpretations include avoiding jewellery, perfume, and cosmetics in the presence of men outside of the family. However, some believe that the saying, “Allah is beautiful and loves beauty,” justifies the act of wearing makeup. For Rahman, the intention is what matters. “My mum criticises some of my makeup looks because she thinks they will draw attention from men, but I do it for myself so I don’t see why that would be an issue,” she explains.

Memunatu Barrie

Like Rahman, colour is a constant source of inspiration to Memunatu Barrie, who will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in textile design from Central Saint Martins in June. Barrie traces her fascination with colour and print to her Sierra Leonean heritage. The Temne people are known for wearing Ankara wax print fabrics with “bold colours and unusual repeat motifs, which I was exposed to as a child and now am inspired by as a fashion designer,” says the 22-year-old.

Titled “Warm Citrus Skins,” Barrie’s graduate collection explores the concept of eternity. As its production coincides with Ramadan – a holy month of fasting, prayer, and reflection for Muslims – it felt appropriate to “question and explore concepts of human existence, soul, and spirit.” The designer is on track to present up to three looks and eight textile prints, which can be applied to upholstery, wallpaper, and furnishings. Inspired by the Peruvian artist, Cecilia Paredes, and Moncler x Richard Quinn’s AW19 collection, she wants her prints to “create the illusion of infinite spaces through which the viewer or wearer cannot see beyond.”

“They warn me that, if I tell my family in Sierra Leone what I study and want to do as a career, they will laugh at me"

Barrie has strategically used her graduate collection as a launchpad for her brand, titled “Barrieatu.” The focus would be on slow fashion, storytelling through design – and “of course, lots of colourful prints and textiles.” Contrary to what some might assume, the designer doesn’t want her brand to cater exclusively for Muslim women. "I want it to appeal to anybody who wishes to dress modestly, many of whom aren’t even religious," she says.

Now, Barrie’s parents are “quite supportive” of her ambition, especially since studying at Central Saint Martins and interning at reputable brands such as PREEN by Thornton Bregazzi. Although, her dad still tells people that she is a tailor. “They warn me that, if I tell my family in Sierra Leone what I study and want to do as a career, they will laugh at me,” she says. "As immigrants who struggled to make a living and didn’t have the opportunity to follow their passions, their doubts are rooted in fear that I will not be able to sustain myself.” Keen to become a lawyer, Barrie’s dad did a bachelor’s degree in law with criminology. However, he put his ambition on hold to support his family of seven and extended family members in Sierra Leone. Barre is likely to have inherited her eye for colour and print from her mother, who “would have loved to become an interior designer.”

Common Concerns

As Muslim women are still underrepresented in the fashion and beauty industries, responsibility inevitably falls on those in the public eye. When the Somali fashion model, Halima Aden, suddenly quit runway modelling last November, Barrie began to question her intentions for pursuing a career in the fashion industry. “Let’s be honest, the world doesn’t need more clothes or brands, but as long as I am not doing anything which blatantly contradicts or disrespects my personal relationship with Allah, then I’m okay with it,” she tells Plaster.

“My mum criticises some of my makeup looks because she thinks they will draw attention from men, but I do it for myself so I don’t see why that would be an issue"

During Nike’s campaign shoot for its React Element 55 trainers in 2019, Rahman was confronted with the consequences of the lack of Muslim women on set. When she realised that the model’s hijab was slipping off her head between shots, Rahman paused the shoot to inform her. “Just like some women don’t like when their hair looks scruffy or out of place, we feel the same way about our hijab,” she explains. “If I hadn’t been on set, would somebody have alerted her?”

Although their parents’ still have some doubts and concerns, it’s clear that Rahman and Barrie have the autonomy, confidence and talent to achieve their creative ambitions.